Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and deputy Winston Peters pose during a cabinet meeting at Parliament on October 26, 2017 in Wellington. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Three years ago, Ardern set a goal of 50% women in cabinet. Now she must deliver

If other countries can deliver gender balanced cabinets, New Zealand has no excuse, writes Emma Riach of Equal Leadership NZ.

As we look ahead to the next three years with Jacinda Ardern once again at the helm, attention turns to the next important selection: who will be given the responsibility to lead New Zealand as part of our new cabinet? And, importantly, who won’t be?

If our country’s history is any indication, we can expect that women will be under-represented in these cabinet roles. While progress has been made over recent decades to advance a woman’s place in senior leadership — including by having women prime ministers — an attitude of complacency has translated into limited political follow-through. Hence women’s representation in New Zealand’s cabinet has not notably risen for more than 20 years, hovering around 25 to 30%. This trend was maintained in Ardern’s last government, with just seven women selected for her 21 cabinet positions.

The glaring lack of women at our most senior level of decision-making is an embarrassment to our democracy. Women do not want to be tokenised or treated as a special-interest group; we want an equal say in shaping society and our own lives. Gender-balanced leadership is recommended by experts worldwide as one of the best tools in our arsenal to advance the rights of women and to shape a more sustainable future for everyone – Ardern needs to heed this advice and implement a gender-balanced cabinet in 2020.

We would be far from the first country to take this proactive step toward a more representative democracy. Countries have been forming gender-balanced cabinets for 25 years, acting on guidance from the United Nations and the historic Beijing Platform for Action, a worldwide gender equality agenda that was adopted by New Zealand in 1995.

There are 14 government cabinets currently made up of at least 50% women including Sweden, Spain, Canada, Colombia, and South Africa. The tangible, positive impact of women’s inclusion on their policy and legislation is clear to see.

Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez named 11 women to top posts including defence and economy in a cabinet with six male ministers. (Photo: JAVIER SORIANO / AFP via Getty Images)

Sweden was the first government to introduce a cabinet with 50% women and demonstrates clearly the important lens that women bring to policy. Since introducing a gender-balanced cabinet, gender equality has been central in Sweden’s decision-making and resource allocation. It has developed policy to ensure that trade activities benefit women and men equally, and now boasts the highest rate of working women in the EU. It has also introduced generous family benefits, flexible working, and affordable childcare including non-transferable paid parental leave to both the mother and the father. Sweden rightfully credits its gender equality policies for its high levels of employment and growth. This is all the more important for Aotearoa to take note of in the midst of a pandemic in which 90% of those who have lost their jobs are women — and the government’s economic response has largely focused on boosting male-dominated trades.

Meanwhile, just two years after Justin Trudeau announced his cabinet would be made up of 15 men and 15 women, Canada launched a first-of-its-kind strategy to address gender-based violence, committing more than $100 million over five years. Early achievements include women’s organisations receiving stable and long-term funding, the development of specialised training for police, and at least 4,000 shelter spaces under construction to house gender-based violence survivors. And while there’s still more work to be done, it shows the kind of long-term legislative action, funding, and commitment to ending violence against women which remains lacking in New Zealand, despite this being one of our country’s most pervasive human rights issues. We shouldn’t continue to expect our mostly male cabinet to make comprehensive decisions about gendered issues.

Of course, women’s contributions are not reserved for issues that only affect women. Women leaders offer expertise on all areas of political and social life and are more likely to work in collaborative and bipartisan ways, leading to positive change for everyone. The OECD has reported that where there are more women cabinet ministers, there is increased spending on public health and greater levels of confidence in the government. This is backed by cross-national research showing that both men and women consider political institutions more legitimate and democratic when more women are in power. Advancing women’s leadership is not simply an ethical obligation; it’s also improves the wellbeing and legitimacy of the entire country.

Public policy works best when it accommodates the needs of everyone’s realities, and that is only possible if our leaders better reflect our society. Men have grown up in a world where male leaders have been the status quo. It’s no longer good enough for men to simply acknowledge their disproportionate level of power; it’s time for them to actively share their power. New Zealand women want to decide the country’s future in solidarity with men, and co-lead with mutual respect, because we want to succeed together.

Jacinda Ardern already recognises this and supports a gender-balanced cabinet, admitting in 2017 that she was not happy with its gender makeup – just 30% women – and vowing to make 50/50 a target. Right now she has the opportunity to follow through, to make history. She can form our first cabinet with men and women united in equal stead in the engine room of our nation.

And while a gender-balanced cabinet won’t completely solve the distinct lack of diverse racial, class, and gender identities at our decision-making tables, it is an important step towards our leaders reflecting the true make up of New Zealand society. If we lift diverse women — including Māori women and those of other ethnicities — into high-profile, varied cabinet roles, women and girls across Aotearoa will see themselves better represented in positions of decision-making. Research shows that this representation will boost other women and girls’ engagement in politics, which in turn will help build the pipeline of future women leaders.

The deliberate selection of an equal number of women and men for cabinet is an effective solution to help dismantle structural, gender-biased barriers holding women back from New Zealand’s most senior government jobs. Power structures in society are reflected in politics. Women are often overlooked for leadership roles because of implicit biases and explicit discrimination against their gender. This means our current system of perceived ‘meritocracy’ (selecting the “best person for the job”) favours men for cabinet roles.

A 50/50 approach to forming cabinet is not tokenism, nor does it treat women as a monolith; it carves out space for qualified, capable women to activate their power in a place where they’ve historically been excluded. A woman is simply better placed than a man at representing women’s needs and voices, especially in an environment where women are consistently under-represented.

The equal integration of women at the top levels of our political power structures is a prerequisite for gender equality in Aotearoa, and for a healthier, more sustainable future where decisions are made with diversity of thought and from a wider spectrum of experiences. That means fewer people, and certainly fewer women and girls, will fall through the cracks in our policies.

It’s time to take this important step toward equality. Aotearoa is ready for our first-ever cabinet fuelled with the talent, perspective, and passion of an equal number of women and men.

Emma Riach is a gender equality advocate, and founder of the grassroots campaign Equal Leadership NZ




The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.